Climate-Friendly Farming

Soy farmers are poised to be a part of the solution when it comes to climate health. Agriculture is both a source and a sink of greenhouse gases: sources generate emissions to the atmosphere and sinks remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and sequester it in plants and soil.

Our farmland has the unique and significant ability to drawdown and store carbon through the photosynthesis process. In addition to crop plant photosynthesis (productivity), agricultural carbon banking comes from inputs such as crop residues, animal manure incorporation, no-till farming, and cover crops. Because of soil’s carbon cycling properties, mounting scientific literature indicates agriculture has the potential to offset its own GHG emissions and become a net carbon sink, meaning the potential exists for agriculture to bank more carbon than is emitted each year.

Through climate-smart agriculture practices, farmers and ranchers can optimize production, improve resiliency, minimize fertilizers and other inputs, improve water use and quality, all while storing carbon in their soils for future generations. While climate-smart agriculture, or CSA, may be a relatively new term, climate-smart farming practices are not. Soy farmers have already incorporated many of these climate-friendly steps into their seasonal farming routines:

  • No-till or reduced till
  • Cover crops
  • Crop rotations
  • Variable rate fertilizer application technology
  • Other precision ag practices
  • Animal manure applications
  • Split nitrogen applications

Recently, these and similar CSA methods have been dubbed an even newer term: regenerative agriculture, which refers to the regeneration of renewable resources essential to achieving a more sustainable form of agriculture. Whether referred to as CSA or regenerative ag, these steps are widely intended to help transform and redirect agricultural systems to effectively support development and ensure food security in a changing climate.

  • Farmers are advancing sustainable agriculture and maximizing agricultural ecosystem service solutions, which in turn safeguards national food security and helps reverse climate change.
  • Agricultural ecosystems can play a significant role in carbon dioxide removal and sequestration, through systems that increase the amount of organic carbon stored in living plants, dead plant parts and the soil.
  • Climate-smart land management systems are rapidly increasing. These systems include advancements in crop protection, soil health, harvesting techniques, integrated pest management, animal care, diet and nutrition, machinery and housing, data sensing and internet connectivity. They focus on using inputs efficiently, improving resiliency for inevitable climate shocks, and strengthening outcomes to both food production and ecosystems services.
  • Soil includes living carbon in the form of fungi, microbes, legumes and grasses. Actions that convert atmospheric carbon to forms that enhance soil nutrition is considered carbon positive.
  • Through climate smart agricultural systems, farmers can enhance the uptake of carbon during the growing process and retain it—sometimes for years or decades—after the harvest.
  • According to EPA, U.S. cropland’s potential as a soil carbon sink is equivalent to the same amount of greenhouse gases avoided by 57,216 windmills, the approximate number of windmills across the U.S. in 2018.
  • The primary greenhouse gases (GHGs) across both crop and animal agriculture are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2 O), and carbon dioxide CO2. For crops, emissions come primarily from agricultural soil management and soil liming/nitrogen fertilizer. This means farming practices really do offer the potential to make a difference.
  • Banking soil carbon through soil health-improving practices can provide stacked benefits to water quality, biodiversity, economic resiliency. These co-benefits are gained through improvements in water infiltration and availability, soil nutrient cycling, soil structure, and reduced erosion.
  • Agriculture has a significant opportunity for carbon drawdown: Realistic climate-smart practices – such as the previously-shared examples employed by soybean farmers – could “materially increase carbon storage” if widely deployed in the U.S. and globally, according to the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), reducing the global ag sector’s GHG emissions by 46% – or, incorporating more cutting-edge technologies, as much as 147%.
  • U.S. farmers are poised to reduce GHG emissions through realistic and often existing practices (e.g. – reduced till, cover crops). In fact, current climate-smart agriculture practices could decrease the ag industry’s GHG emissions in the U.S. to 3.8%. And, new technologies and innovations that are on the horizon could make the industry net negative in as little as 15 years.
    U.S. soils have the ability to hold 100 times more carbon than current emissions, according to the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) annual report on agriculture’s ecosystem services. That is the equivalent of more than 123 billion cars driven for a year.
  • According to analysis from American Farm Bureau Federation, agriculture only accounts for 8.4% of greenhouse gases in the U.S., this analysis based on EPA’s annual Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2017-latest year).
  • However, even with under 10% of U.S. emissions, there is a great opportunity for agriculture to sequester carbon to turn the sector carbon sequestration positive. The potential exists to bank more carbon than is emitted each year.

Check out this 2020 video on soybean farmers’ Carbon Smart Soy Farming Practices Video from USB, including messaging from ASA.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most commonly-produced greenhouse gas. A carbon sink sucks up and stores CO2 from the atmosphere. Sinks can be any reservoir, natural or otherwise, that absorbs more carbon than it releases, thereby lowering the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The main natural carbon sinks are plants, the ocean, and soil. Plants grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to use in photosynthesis; some of this carbon is transferred to the soil as the plants die and decompose.

Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is one method of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with the goal of reducing global climate change. The two major types of carbon sequestration are geologic and biologic. Find out more from the Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey.